Elements of Learning Experience Design

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The process of designing any sort of human experience, regardless of purpose or platform, is centered around reaching a desired outcome, ideally with as little fuss and as much joy as possible.

The purpose of an experience and the platform on which the experience takes place will vary: purchasing a plane ticket on a tablet to vacation, enjoying a musical performance in a theater, or learning to code in a classroom. Although each of these experiences require their own unique methods and frameworks, the elements that should be taken into consideration during the design process remain mostly the same.

The best representation of those elements comes from Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience. While Garrett’s “elements” are most relevant to digital product design, I’ve been able to use them as a roadmap for developing learning experiences for adults.

Designing adult learning experiences that take place either online or in a classroom has always traditionally been about defining a curriculum. That process of curriculum creation is most commonly called instructional design. But, in the same way that user experience design requires much more than deciding what content should go on a website, true learning experience design requires much more than curriculum.

With that in mind, I took Garrett’s Elements as inspiration to create my own Elements of Learning Experience Design to formalize and communicate a design process I have struggled to explain to others.

Elements of learning experience design
Elements of learning experience design

Strategy plane

What are the needs and goals of your learners and your organization?

The goal of almost any learning experience is rooted in acquiring the new skills, knowledge, motivation, and/or confidence to change an existing behavior or create a new one. Those changes in behavior should have measurable impacts, allowing you to define key success metrics.

Before you start building anything, you should first get a better understanding of the needs you’re trying to solve for.

Ultimately, adult learners and their organizations expect learning experiences to establish behaviors that make their lives or work more efficient and effective.

This means identifying the learner’s needs1, which include the additional skills and knowledge required to do something differently, and their goals, which is what they hope to accomplish by doing things differently. Identifying your organization’s needs and goals are equally important. A successful learning experience must be able to address the objectives of both, regardless of how different they may be.

Ultimately, adult learners and their organizations expect learning experiences to establish behaviors that make their lives or work more efficient and effective.

As a learning experience designer, you should focus your time and attention during the strategy plane on identifying the gaps that exist between the learner and his/her desired outcome. Those gaps exist due to a lack of the following:

  • Knowledge: Do learners lack the proper information to complete a task?
  • Skill: Do they have all of the right information but lack the ability to translate that knowledge into action that could be applied to a given situation?
  • Confidence: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill, but do they hesitate or refuse to apply it?
  • Motivation: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill confidently but just don’t want to do it?
  • Access: Do they have all of the above but lack the proper tools or resources to complete a task?

Once you are able to properly identify the gaps that cause learners to struggle, you must design a solution that effectively addresses those gaps.

Requirements plane

What are the key topics, methods, activities, and logistics required to create a successful learning experience?

Once your objectives have reached a certain level of clarity, you can begin defining the content and functional requirements needed of the learning experience in order to reach those objectives.

Let’s break this down by using an example.

Start with your objectives. Let’s say your political campaign wants to decrease the amount of inaccurate voter data without decreasing the amount of data coming in.

What key metrics represent success to your organization and your learners? Based on the example’s objectives, the key metrics could be maintaining the amount of data being processed, and decreasing the number of “inaccurate information” reports.

Work backwards from there to figure out the core behaviors that support those metrics from being reached. In this example, volunteers must be able to ask accurate questions, know how to fill out data reports, and do it all pretty quickly.

Then, outline the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources needed to exhibit those behaviors. Asking effective questions is a skill built upon the knowledge of what makes certain questions effective, and what the campaign is interested in learning.

Knowing how to accurately fill out a form is a knowledge-based task requiring a limited amount of practice. Doing something quickly and accurately has a lot to do with practice, confidence, and motivation. Logistically, volunteers need to have access to data entry forms or terminals, and voters to speak to.

Next, map those components to topics and activities. By the end of the training session learners will be able to describe why accurate data is critical to the campaign, prioritize what data is most important to the campaign, identify the right questions to ask to gather that data, and practice inputting that data into different forms or terminals.

And that’s how you arrive at your content requirements.

It’s also important to think beyond what content is required of an experience. The content outlined in our example above may close our learners’ knowledge, skill, and confidence gap, but it will likely fail to achieve the actual objectives without functional requirements.

For offline learning experiences, these functional requirements include facilities, personnel, logistics (materials, A/V, and the like), and pre-/post-course support (including on-boarding and continued engagement and follow-up).

Online learning experiences have similar functional requirements, including platform (such as a custom site versus Articulate), designers and engineers to actually build the digital product, downloadable materials, and pre-/post-course support.

One of the worst mistakes you can make as a learning experience designer is to assume that functional requirements take care of themselves. When functional requirements are not built into the experience, you end up with disgruntled learners that will be much less likely to apply anything they’ve learned during the experience you’ve designed.

Structure plane

How will the topics, activities, logistics, and assessments be structured?

Imagine you’re learning how to drive.

First, your instructor teaches you about starting your car. Next, she goes over how to park your car. After that, she teaches you about the gas pedal, the brake pedal, and going in reverse. And finally, she shows you how to adjust your mirrors.

Does this sequence of events sound strange to you? That’s because the structure of the learning experience described above is not being taken into consideration.

Once you’ve outlined your requirements and objectives, you must think about how those requirements will be structured.

Both in user experience and learning experience design, this relates directly to the organizing of information in order to make it usable, otherwise known as information architecture.

For an adult learning experience to be successful, it must be designed and structured in the way that makes most logical and relevant sense to the learner. To do that, you must first understand how different topics relate to one another in the learner’s mind (example: A key unlocks a door), in what order they usually occur (example: A door must be unlocked before being opened), and what knowledge or skill builds upon another (example: Turning a key builds the skill to turn a doorknob).

If you were to create a sales training program, would you begin with a customer entering the store, or would you begin with the product arriving into inventory? Would the section on point-of-sale systems be near the beginning, middle, or end of the program?

Structure becomes even trickier when your program involves non-linear scenarios, like setting up a multi-channel marketing campaign. Should the learner know about Google Analytics before or after Facebook Paid Advertising? There are valid arguments to either option, but the real question is what makes most sense to the learner?

To answer that question, you’ll often have to look back at your objectives and learner needs. How much do you know about your learners, their daily responsibilities, and their environment? If you’re still finding it difficult to determine the structure of your learning experience, you should probably do more research.

Structure also applies to the functional requirements of your learning experience. When will learners need the most support? Which topics or skills present the largest challenge to your learners? You should also consider whether or not the learning environment is conducive to the type of experience you’re designing (online vs. offline, short-term vs. long-term, facilitated vs. self-led, and the like).

Interaction plane

What will learners actually be doing, hearing, and seeing during the learning experience?

The interaction plane deals directly with designing the materials, activities, lectures, and discussions that make up the learning experience. This is where instructional design lives. As an instructional designer, you will focus most of your efforts on defining exactly how learners are introduced to new skills and knowledge, and what practice and application look like those those skills.

When introducing new knowledge to learners, it helps tremendously to root it in existing knowledge. This can be done through the use of use analogies, previous experiences, and common cultural references. To use these methods effectively, you must have a strong grasp of your learners’ perspectives and experiences as they relate to the content.

Acquiring new skills demands a different approach. Learners must be able to actually apply new skills to both real and hypothetical problems within the learning experience in order to become proficient. Think of how many times you had to practice parking a car in both empty and full parking lots before you felt comfortable parking on a daily basis. You must create opportunities that allow learners to practice and apply their new skills in supportive environments.

This is also the time to think about how your learners’ progress will be tracked. Assessment criteria should first be defined within the requirements plane, and then built into the program in the structure plane. Exactly which tools and processes are used to evaluate a learner’s skill-level, and how progress is communicated back to learners should be defined here.

Sensory plane

What will the learning experience look and sound like?

The experience you design must be able to cater to your learners’ sense as well as align with your organization’s brand. The sensory plane applies to all materials and instructions designed for the program, including presentation decks, guides, web sites, lesson plans, worksheets, activity materials, and so on.

The sensory plane allows your materials to implicitly communicate information to your learners about the experience they are about to have. The tone of your written content, as well as the visual design of your materials, should represent your organization’s branding and communicate the mood of the experience, be it professional, fun, or quirky. In the same way that content should be strategically structured, the visual design of your materials should be cohesive and consistent.

The sensory plane is your opportunity to create a learning experience that is both functional and beautiful. Decks are designed as visual references to anchor learners, but if they’re filled with too much text and poorly chosen images, decks end up being frustrating and useless. A lack of verbal instructions will frustrate learners, but it’s still better than unclear or misleading instructions.

People, regardless of their preferences, are drawn to polished, well-designed materials and clear communication. The sensory layer creates a single, cohesive experience that allows learners to focus on gaining new skills and not deciphering their their learning environment.


Designing learning experiences must be treated in the same way as designing any sort of user experience. Learners, just like users, have needs that can only be solved through proper research, design, validation, and iteration.

Anyone involved in adult learning should step outside the limiting boundaries of curriculum design in order to account for the learner’s entire experience. By only focusing on content, we are missing out and what actually makes up a person’s reality, including the environment in which they’re learning in, and their lives before and after the learning experience.

By taking each of these elements into consideration, any teacher or instructional designer can start begin to think beyond those limitations, and look to create immersive and enriching experiences for their learners. This not only allows us to be more effective at teaching others, but it also establishes a higher level of quality that people should expect of a learning experiences.


1 The well known and accepted theory of learning styles (auditory, visual, and kinesthetic) has in the last few years been debunked and left behind by many learning designers. No scientific evidence has been found to support the theory that students will learn more effective if a topic is presented in their “prefered style.” Ultimately, students learn best by receiving information through all three styles.


  1. A wise and lengthy article. I like it. All killer no filler. One very important aspect of online adult learning is to leverage the behaviour of gamification.
    I find that this methodology of implementation actually assists the learner by making learning fun, engaging while somewhat relieving the actual stress and effort of learning in itself.

  2. That was definitely a good read. Designing learning experiences is a challenging task, but always the goal of making the user experiences simple, fun and engaging.

  3. Thanks for this great write up, Andre. It’s also very helpful to regularly reevaluate how the learning experience you’ve created is solving for these elements.

  4. Thank you for looking beyond the walled garden of instructional systems design in order to find a way of improving it.

    My one suggestion would be to switch the names of the bottom two elements, Requirements as the name of the lowest element (What are the needs and goals of your learners and your organization?) and Strategy as the name of the second lowest element (What are the key topics, methods, activities, and logistics required to create a successful learning experience?). In my experience, you always start with the requirements from which you build your strategy, then you create your structure, interactions, and sensory elements.

    Just my two cents. Fantastic work, at any rate.

  5. I have been reading this wonderful blog for years, but this post is particularly valuable. Many thanks!

  6. I Loved the book by james garrett that you mentioned above. It was one of the books that I first read when I was learning to “do ux”. One of the daunting tasks when a person first decides that they want to be a ux practitioner is to figure out where to begin. His book is a good place. I did however run across some other books that have help to mold me and make me who I am today.

    What book do you read first? Who’s word do you go to with book recommendations? It was a tough call. When I started reading, I wanted to get in the “learning zone” that would be most inline with the industry. I did some research in 2013 on this very topic. I’ve compiled a list of books listed by popularity (or in other words most suggested down to least suggested)…

    User Experience Reading List: Getting started in User Experience

    Hope it helps someone out who is looking to grow in their career.

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